30 October 2012

The Red and the White 2: Gulag Conservatism

It is in the dark depths of heinous immorality that conservatives are made truly aware of the moral grounding on which we must stand—not the vague, saccharine humanitarianism of the religion of Liberalism, but the stark, absolute morality of the catacombs, the Colosseum, of Dachau, and of the Gulag. To decadent, amoral conservatives—the Laz-E-Boy conservatism fostered by Anglo-American capitalism—the conservatism of the East seems too stark, too radical, too authoritarian. This is because Western—and especially American—conservatives have no conception of what Revolution looks like. In America, the cult of revolution has blinded many who call themselves “conservative” to the evils of such a thing. The West has become senile – it remembers the facts of history, and formulates dry theories and interpretations of events, but it has forgotten the experience of that history and the spiritual and moral consequences of human actions and human thoughts.

I would say my outlook has been formed largely in concentration camps… those people who have lived in the most terrible conditions, on the frontier between life and death… all understand that between good and evil there is an irronciliable contradiction, that it is not one and the same thing—good or evil—that one cannot build one’s life without regard to this distinction.” Solzhenitsyn summarised the root of Russian illiberal conservatism in this brief statement during his interview on the BBC’s Panorama in 1976.

Фёдор Достое́вский
(Fyodor Dostoevsky)
One is struck here by the similarities between Solzhenitsyn and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was, as Ronald Hingley notes, one of the general liberal opposition that seemed to reign supreme in Russian literary circles until his exile to a katorga in Siberia for revolutionary political acquaintances. Upon returning, his conservatism, and especially his Orthodoxy, were markedly stronger, such that today he is often grouped with Gogol and among Slavophile authors like Danilevsky. Nor do the similarities end here—the influence of Dostoevsky on Solzhenitsyn reveals itself in The Gulag Archipelago. The authors of The Solzhenitsyn Reader published by ISI in 2006 write:

The moral vision of The Gulag Archipelago reaches its acme in this section’s first chapter, ‘The Ascent’, which initiates the work’s upward movement of spiritual triumph over the Gulag’s effort to dehumanise. This soaring chapter relates the dramatic events surrounding the key moments of Solzhenitsyn’s own religious renewal. Yet and honest reckoning must balance stories of ascent with those of descent, so the next chapter is ‘Or Corruption?’”

The similarity here to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, is striking. His characterisation of the katorga as a “house of the dead” possesses a dual meaning expressing the way in which good and evil become real to the prisoner: in his experience and his choice to become one or the other, to choose what kind of “dead” he is to be. For in Dostoevsky, there are two opposing understandings of “the dead”. In the first place, there are those for whom the experience of suffering in the prison camp is spiritually uplifting, bringing them to a higher realisation of Truth; these men have become dead to the world, a central theme in Orthodox mysticism. The other group are those who suffer soul-death, in whom prison brings out the worst and who are completely consumed by the temptation and corruption in the small society that a katorga or Gulag form. What is perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s most vivid portrayal of this is in his own prison novel, In the First Circle. In it, we can see the character of Nerzhin influenced by the Christian Sologdin and the idealist painter Kondrashov-Ivanov, and even the Marxist Rubin, to stand upon a moral principle and accept that moral principle instead of surrender to wants or even needs. “Christianity,” Sologdin declares, “is the faith of the strong in spirit. We must have the courage to see the evil in the world and root it out.” Sologdin and Nerzhin are resigned to their sufferings their position as prisoners—they have become dead to the world. Against this image is the spectre of the stool pigeon—characters like Artur Siromakha, who surrenders to the temptations of the place in which he dwells; he thirsts for the wealth and power being a stoolie grants him. Unlike the convinced Marxist Rubin, Siromakha supports the tyrannical regime without principle or moral scruples. He has suffered soul death, and become one of “the dead”.

Solzhenitsyn’s firm grip on good and evil, his appreciation for what it means to die to the world – in short, his Gulag Conservatism—informed his warnings to the Western world about the state of our own Civilisation and culture. He repeats in three speeches, two before the AFL-CIO in America and one on BBC radio, a motto of resignation to the fate of the West which will not hear him: “your society refuses to heed our warning voices. I suppose we must admit, sad though it is, that experience cannot be transmitted: everyone must experience everything for himself.”
The question bears asking: why was Solzhenitsyn so well received
by a Western press which both then and today is exactly as he
described it?

He offers a strong critique of the West’s way of approaching world politics—the approach that allowed for the Bolsheviks to come to power, the alliance with them, the concessions of 1945 and throughout the Cold War. He speaks of Dostoevsky’s warning that socialism would cost Russia 100 million lives – an underestimation by 10 million as of 1959. Most importantly, he warns against the limp liberalism of the West, the left-leaning and senile pacifism Spengler spoke of in his Hearst Cosmopolitan article “Is World Peace Possible?

We contemplate the West from what will be your future, or we look back seventy years to see our past suddenly repeating itself today. And what we see is always the same as it was then: adults deferring to the opinion of their children; the younger generation carried away by shallow, worthless ideas; professors scared of being unfashionable; journalists refusing to take responsibility for the words they squander so easily; people with serious objections unable or unwilling to voice them; the majority passively obsessed by a feeling of doom; feeble governments; societies whose defensive reactions have become paralyzed; spiritual confusion leading to political upheaval. What will happen as a result of all this lies ahead of us. But the time is near, and from bitter memory we can easily predict what these events will be.

“In the years which followed the worldwide upheaval of 1917, that pragmatic philosophy on which present-day Europe is nourished, with its refusal to take moral decisions, reached its logical conclusion: sicne there are no higher spiritual forces above us and since I—Man with a capital M—am the crowning glory of the universe, then if anyone must perish today, let it be someone else, anybody, but not I, not my precious self, or those who are close to me.”
This searing criticism of Western complacency, selfishness, and greed deserves to be reprinted and widely circulated among conservatives who wish to live up to that name rather than merely wear the label. It is important not only for its poignancy but for the accuracy of the picture it paints - irresponsible journalists, shallow youth, facile leaders, and spiritual confusion are at the very core of the protest movements not merely in the last decade (such as Tea Party & Occupy), but as far back as Solzhenitsyn's own lifetime.

I hope, perhaps, to offer extensive excerpts of this address at some point if I find that the copyright permits it, for it is a message that badly needs to be heard. It is similar, though not the same, as the critique offered in his famous (or perhaps infamous among left and right alike in America) address to the graduating students of Harvard University in 1978, two years after his address on BBC radio. Solzhenitsyn’s voice, echoing down the decades, is not, however, the only critique worth hearing coming from Russia. Next week, we'll take a look at one of the louder voices of right-wing dissent from contemporary Russia, Alexander Dugin.


  1. you should also mention Leontiev, IMO Russia's best philosopher.

    1. As I said, I am planning to expand this into an article if I can find someone interested in publishing it. I'd very much like to expand more on Dostoevsky's Christianity and White emigre impact on interwar German conservatism.

    2. have you ever read "the russian roots of national socialism " ?

    3. I have not, but I have heard of the book and been told of the contents. I wonder if too much influence is accorded to Rosenberg, for whom Hitler had very little regard. However, it is definitely certain that Russian thought was filtering into Germany.